Webinar Contextualizes Independent Business Survey Findings

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On Tuesday, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) hosted the webinar “Measuring Local First: Results From the Annual ILSR Independent Business Survey,” which assessed the findings of the post-holiday survey of independent business owners across the U.S., released earlier this month.

Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), began the webinar by discussing the survey results and the ways that business owners and indie advocates can use the information to build localism in their own communities. Erica Pederson, membership and communications coordinator of Find Local Arizona, then shared how her organization has put the findings to use.

This year’s survey participants included 2,602 business owners, split evenly between retailers and non-retailers, said Mitchell. The non-retailers consisted of service providers, workers on small farms, contractors, and artisans.

Among the “unofficial findings” of the survey was that “independent business owners refuse to be pigeonholed,” she said, noting that many respondents did not feel their businesses accurately fit into one category. Additionally, Mitchell saw that “independent business owners have a lot to say,” which was evidenced by the 500-plus additional comments that were submitted by survey respondents.

In order for survey participants to be considered part of a Local First initiative, they had be located in an area with a year-round visible public education campaign that highlights the benefits of choosing locally owned, independent businesses, Mitchell explained, before revealing the data.

“Local First initiatives are making a significant impact,” she said, as evidenced by the 75 percent of respondents who said a Local First campaign has had a positive impact in their communities. When asked what such initiatives have accomplished, 59 percent of respondents said that the Local First initiatives helped bring in new customers.

“Think of the cost acquiring new customers,” said Mitchell. “It’s expensive. The idea that for the relatively low cost of being a member of a Local First organization can increase the number of customers is pretty amazing.”

Survey respondents also reported experiencing improved customer loyalty, increased local media coverage, and increased overall customer traffic in business districts as a result of a Local First campaign.

When asked to rate a list of challenges from one to five, five being the most challenging, 49 percent of respondents rated “competition from large Internet companies” as a four or five. Looking at retailers alone, 69 percent of respondents rated this challenge as a four or five. Interestingly, only 40 percent of retailers rated competition from large bricks-and-mortar companies as a four or five, which is a marked shift in recent years, said Mitchell.

Being aware of these challenges gives Local First and trade organizations an opportunity to address them directly from a public education and advocacy standpoint, she added.

When prioritizing policy issues, retailers’ responses “all had to do with leveling the playing field,” said Mitchell. The top three policies of importance were passing the Marketplace Fairness Act, eliminating public subsidies for big companies, and capping credit card swipe fees.

Among retailers, 41 percent cited “large Internet companies not collecting sales tax” as having a significant negative impact on their business.

Though many retailers indicated the need for a stronger voice on policy issues, booksellers were a standout in terms of owner involvement in advocating on policy issues, Mitchell said, adding that this is likely due to the advocacy tools provided by the American Booksellers Association. 

If Local First initiatives and trade organizations provide the resources, “owners will take advantage of them to speak up on important issues,” said Mitchell, who encourages business owners and others to use the survey results to draw media attention and increase awareness by “telling the indie story.”

Local First Arizona has distributed the survey results to members, supporters, and followers, as a way to provide positive feedback. “People love numbers,” said Pederson. “And our members feel that our work is making an impact.”

Pederson has presented information from the survey to donors and when applying for grants and funding, as well as to get attention from the press. When Local First Arizona launched its annual campaign to inspire community members to shop independently for the holidays, they used data from past surveys, and many local publications picked it up. “It was great because it was part of the story we were trying to tell,” Pederson said.

Local First organizations can contact Mitchell to request survey data specific to their own regions, Pederson said, and they should also encourage members of their communities to participate in the survey, so there is an even sample.